Renowned Senegalese chef Pierre Thiam has been a fixture on the New York and global food scene for years as executive chef at Nok by Alara in Lagos, chef at the Pullman Hotel in Dakar and owner of Teranga in New York City.
In 2017, he launched Yolélé, which works with West African farms to promote and market fonio, a grain, in the U.S. It was a move that would change his life. At his TED Talk about the grain that year, he caught the attention of Lisa Katayama, a former journalist and now his wife.
These days they live in Oakland — a move prompted by the pandemic — and have just welcomed their second child. And the new “Simply West African” (Clarkson Potter, $28) his fourth cookbook, but the first they’ve done together, lands Sept. 19. (This conversation has been edited for brevity.)
Q: Can you tell us about fonio and that TED talk?
Thiam: Fonio has so much to offer as a solution to the food system, climate changes and challenges. It’s an underutilized grain that’s disappearing. So it became a mission. Why can’t these grains become a world-class crop? Why are they disappearing? They’re nutritious, they’re drought resistant, they’re delicious. And there was one person in the audience of my TED Talk that happened to be Lisa.
Katayama: That’s how we met. TED talks are all pretty ambitious, and Pierre’s was simple and clear in the path from what he’s doing to how it changes the world. By eating West African food and sourcing West African ingredients, you can actually create a global impact for farmers in Africa, but also for the way we eat in America, which is often from the same four ingredients or factory farms.
Q: How does the cookbook differ from your others?
Thiam: The point of this book was to make (West African cooking) accessible in a new context. It’s presenting the food that we have on a daily basis, the food that I cook Lisa as my way of showing her love. It’s my love letters since the moment I’ve known her. I want to show readers that you can have West African food on weeknights. It’s totally delicious. It’s the most balanced diet out there. It is very nutritious. It just checks so many boxes.
Q: How has living in California affected your cooking?
Thiam: It improved it. Even during the pandemic, we (went) to farmers markets around the corner. At the time we were living in El Cerrito, and we had these farmers markets on a weekly basis. We had a collaboration with Alice Waters, for instance, a pop-up (at Chez Panisse) that was really well received. New York has a wonderful food culture, but California has something that’s different – in terms of freshness of produce, a similarity to West African food.
Q: Tell us more about West African food …
Thiam: I first started cooking food from memories of the street food that I would eat in Dakar as a kid. It’s an ancient culture (that) has already influenced the cuisines of America. Look at Southern food. After all these hundreds of years of hardships, it is still here reinventing itself.
Lisa’s from Japan and I’m from Senegal, and in spite of those differences, you realize that we have so much in common in the food world. Rice, fish, seafood (are) a big thing in both our cultures. Some of the techniques of cooking and fermentation are also similar. So in the book, there are dishes — like fonio Japanese breakfast porridge — inspired by recipes from both worlds.
Q: And Yolélé…?
Thiam: It’s exciting. When Lisa and I met, we were just launching. Whole Foods was distributing our very first product, fonio grain. Today, we have nationwide distribution at Whole Foods and Berkeley Bowl. We have fonio pilafs inspired by traditional recipes from West Africa, jollof fonio, yassa fonio, Afro-funk (spice mix).
After we created the demand, it was important that we also secure the supply, so that meant working with small farmers and communities. We commissioned milling equipment that (reduces) post-harvest waste to single digits. It speeds up production from one ton per day to two tons per hour.
Q. What’s the big picture for you?
Thiam: The Ukraine War has created famine in Africa. It’s kind of crazy when you think about it — on a continent that has the largest arable land in the world and so many food plants — that we depend on Ukraine to supply us with wheat.
Wheat became a thing in Africa since colonization. Africa doesn’t grow wheat. That’s one of the anomalies of the food system, a whole region of the world depending on a crop that is not even part of its natural environment, ancestry or heritage. But we haven’t created a supply chain with our own products.
We are writing this book as a decolonizing act (to) bring back these ingredients, these recipes that are from our tradition — and this book also is a conversation with the ancestors.
Katayama: I like the idea of this book as a catalyst for a multigenerational diasporic conversation – with your ancestors but also people who are conscious eaters here, like people who buy their food at Berkeley Bowl.
Thiam: That’s what cuisine is: transcending borders, getting people together around the table, connecting cultures and just fostering understanding of each other. People think of Africa as a continent of scarcity, of famine, of “You need to help those poor Africans, they need food.” And yet, there’s so much abundance. This is dispelling that myth.
In West Africa, the colonization mindset made it so that when you go to the big cities like Dakar or Lagos, what you would see downtown are fine restaurants from all over the world. You see French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese restaurants, and you wouldn’t see African ones — and that always bothered me. That’s not the way it should be. It should be us presenting our food with pride – our food is delicious, and we should present it elevated in a fine setting.
Meet the chef: Meet Pierre Thiam at a book signing at 6:30 pm. Sept. 19 at San Francisco’s Omnivore Books. Join Thiam and Claremont Club & Spa executive chef Joseph Paire for a five-course Heritage Dinner ($165) at the Berkeley hotel on Sept. 28. View the menu and find details at www.claremont-hotel.com/events/heritage-dinner/.
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